A Note on New Ruins

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‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’

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‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’

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‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’

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‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’

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‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’

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The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.

11 comments on “A Note on New Ruins

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Now that’s some fine writing! Off to track down the book. Regards Thom

  2. Valerie Pakenham says:

    Wonderful quote – but these ruins certainly lack charm – whereabouts are they? Love,Val

    CU soon

  3. wonderful photographs and wonderful text! the old fireplaces are something I’m particularly fond of myself (you could see some of them on my website, if you wished – at http://www.emacl.com

  4. Finola says:

    Yes, and what a great set of photographs! Time to start talking about ruin porn.

  5. Martin Morgan says:

    ‘Ah, but there is no true beauty, without decay!’

  6. Peter Davidson says:

    Once more, my thanks for the continual interest and instruction offered by your texts and photographs — your journal, generously shared, is an appreciated quotidian pleasure. Many thanks from the other Georgian capital in these islands.

  7. It is unsettling how these photographs are both beautiful and ominous – so in that sense they really capture the essence of ‘ruin’. And those neatly stacked televisions add a cyberpunk note.

  8. Luke Moloney says:

    What brilliant writing. I hope to find a copy of the book. Thank you for sharing this, and your beautiful, poetic pictures. How sad that such beautiful homes lie derelict and neglected; and that resources are given instead to throwing up flimsy and inelegant, and typically uncouth, modern houses. If we restored and brought our abandoned old buildings back to life before building more new ones, our environment – and our lives – would be greatly enhanced.

    • Dear Luke,
      How nice to hear from you, and I trust this finds all well: I was sorry not to make it to your part of the world recently when invited by our mutual friends, but another time soon…
      Meanwhile, yes Rose Macaulay’s book is rather wonderful (in fact, all her books are so) and I highly recommend it to you, imbued as it is with both scholarship. engagement and – inevitably – a certain melancholy.

  9. […] become a fetish and a buzzword in some circles in recent years, producing a trickle of books, and the attraction seems to be a love of decay, or a love of ruins as a kind of ἀποκάλυψις, or un-veiling […]

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